Our future is not really about us leaving the earth. It’s about heaven reuniting with earth and God living here, healing and restoring everything that’s broken, and bringing life and healing to the world.
We began a series on the storyline of the Bible way back on March 1, which was in a different era. Since we started this series, everything has changed, and it’s hard to believe. But in God’s grace, the ending to this series couldn’t be more suitable for the time that we face.
Why do I say this? We began by asking the question, “Why is the world glorious but broken?” And we’re living in the middle of that right now. It’s glorious: we have Netflix and Zoom and Uber Eats and friends. But it’s broken. We have coronavirus and job losses and financial pressures, and we’re all going stir crazy. We’re all feeling it. We love life, and yet we hate parts of it too. That’s where the story begins, and it’s where we live.
We’ve been following the twists and turns of this story with two major threads:
- Brokenness — We’ve seen the brokenness continue: we’ve seen sin and exile and longing.
- Hope — And we’ve also seen hope: God’s relentless plan through one man, and then one nation, and then one man again — Jesus – to rescue us from our sins and the world from its curse.
Okay, that’s where we’ve been so far. Two threads, brokenness and hope, and we’re living in the middle of that, and it’s sometimes hard to tell which one is winning out.
How will this story end? Which one wins out?
I have a confession to make as we begin. I have had a really bad history in answering this question.
When I was still a seminary student, a teacher-friend invited me to teach her class about heaven. I figured, “How hard can it be?” I started to panic the night before when I realized that most of what I’d learned about heaven came from popular culture and wasn’t very good news. I tried to cram that evening but was still really poorly prepared. I couldn’t even answer the questions of little children about what our future would be like.
I’m not alone. You’re probably aware that the Bible teaches a lot about what our future will be. But a lot of us are probably fuzzy on the details. For a lot of us, the afterlife sounds like eternal boredom. Listen to what one person said:
If there is no disease, sickness, aging, or death in heaven, if there are no obstacles to overcome and nothing to work for, what is there to do? Forever is a long time to be blissfully bored. (Michael Shermer)
The atheist Christopher Hitchens even called heaven a “celestial North Korea” from which “you would never be able to escape,” a “place of endless praise and adoration, limitless (self-denial) and (depreciation) of self.” Doesn’t sound like much fun! But that’s not what our future is.
What I want to do today is to give you one of many pictures the Bible gives us about the future, then spend two or three minutes filling out this picture, and then to give you a simple application. Sound good? One picture. Then we’ll zoom out a little. And then we’ll apply what we’ve learned.
So here’s the picture. It’s not the one that some of you are expecting from Revelation 21:21 of a gate made from pearls and a street made from gold. It’s actually a less well known but more significant picture from the Bible that shows up twice.
Here’s the first time this picture shows up. We just read it. It’s from Ezekiel 47. In chapters 40 to 48, Ezekiel describes how God’s presence will one day return to his people and his temple. Ezekiel has a vision of what this new temple and new city would look like. A tour guide even shows him around. What he sees is even more amazing than Solomon’s temple. There’s a new altar, new priests, and a new system of worship. And the best part: God’s throne comes back and enters the temple. God once again lives with his people, and it’s better than ever.
All of that is a setup for what we’re about to read. In chapter 47, Ezekiel describes a stream that pours out of the temple threshold. It starts as a trickle, then it gets ankle deep, then knee deep, and then waist deep. Pretty soon this stream becomes a river that’s so big that you can’t pass through it. It becomes a raging river as it flows from the temple, through the city, and into the desert in one of the most desolate places on earth, the Dead Sea Valley.
The Dead Sea Valley is one of the most desolate places on earth. It’s the lowest place on earth, 1400 feet below sea level. The Dead Sea is ten times saltier than the ocean. There’s hardly any rain. Fish and plants can’t live in it. It’s a brutal place.